Scaling the Wall of Sound in Worship: Part 3
In Part One of this series, we looked at the history of the Wall of Sound from its use in 1960s pop music to the present day. In Part Two, we surveyed some of the benefits of the ever-rising Wall of Sound in worship.
I am obliged, however, to now raise my hand and politely object to some of the other qualities that the Wall brings into worship. I am biased, to be honest. Despite my acknowledgement of the Wall’s benefits in worship, I long for the Wall to come down—Berlin 1989 style. When you weigh the pros and cons, I am convinced it does more damage than good.
Now, before you crack your knuckles and loosen up your finger joints in preparation of typing a scathing comment or email, please permit me this one disclaimer: this is a non-essential issue, at least when compared to the theological biggies like salvation by grace and the divinity of Jesus Christ. If I attended your church, for example, and my opinions on this matter caused you so much heartburn that you could barely stand the sight of me on Sunday mornings, I would rather throw my opinions on this non-essential debate into the sea than cause division in my fellowship with you. I would focus wholly on the positives of the Wall of Sound, do my best to endure whatever flaws I perceived, and worship my heart out with you by my side—Wall of Sound or no Wall of Sound.
And—I can’t help but add—if more of us took this approach to non-essential theological debates, we would have much happier fellowship. There would be fewer church splits and probably fewer denominations too.
So, with your eyes on the white flag of peace in my hand, please consider the following weaknesses in the Wall of Sound:
Weakness #1: The Largest Prayer Closet in Christendom
The overwhelming tidal wave of a live worship band unleashing its full rock star awesomeness through the house speakers does two things: 1) it fulfills the secret self-centered dreams of guitarists like myself (I confess!) who have always wanted to be in a band like U2 and play huge sounding anthems to thousands of screaming people; and 2) it turns a giant venue into a prayer closet of individualistic privacy. The loud volume of the band effectively mutes the congregational worship. You can’t hear any of your brothers and sisters worshiping. What could have (and should have) been a time of congregational, corporate worship becomes a private “God and me” time. It is no different than worshiping in your prayer closet. The people around you might as well not be there. In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, Paul commands Christians to sing to one another as a disciplined component of fellowship. Not only did he tell two different churches in two completely separate letters the same thing, he used the same phrase: “Sing to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” When Scripture repeats a command using the same specific wording, we should do a double take and pay special attention to it.
I can also tell you from experience that when the giant Wall of Sound is reduced to more of a modest Shrubbery of Sound so that you can hear the raw, earnest voices rising from the congregation like pillars of incense, it is more unifying as a Body than listening to the professional worshipers on stage who are turned up to 11.
Weakness #2: Killing Me Loudly with Your Song
The worst abuse of the Wall of Sound occurs in small churches. You might have noticed in the section above that I referred to worship bands turning giant venues into private prayer closets. Weakness #1 is more applicable to the larger churches that must use a powerful sound system to fill a vast sanctuary. For them, the use of the Wall of the Sound is more justifiable and tempting. For a mega-church seating 5,000 people in its stadium-like amphitheater, the band has to play pretty loud just to lead the people through the songs. The thousands of people in the congregation are more easily heard over the band. My arguments lose a little bit of their steam when you’re talking about a ginormous church with half the city seated in one service.
Where the Wall of Sound really becomes a problem is in small to midsize churches. I’ve experienced it firsthand in a wide variety of settings. We musicians sometimes express our eagerness to worship God by cranking up the volume. I should also mention: this is not a diatribe against worship teams. I’ve played in and led all sorts of worship teams for almost two decades. I share the guilt here. I’ve wielded the hammer of amplified sound with Thor-like intensity and crushed the congregation into little bits. The hardest test of pride for any serious musician is a counter-clockwise turn of the volume dial—for that is the only proper direction in a small church setting. It’s a big deal if a worship team can swallow its pride and quiet itself enough so that the congregational singing can be clearly heard.
In corporate worship, the real “team” is not the group of musicians, but the congregation itself. The musicians are mere facilitators. We’re servants getting the bowls of water and towels and washing your feet so that it’s easier for you to run into the presence of Christ and worship Him. But if the voice of the Bride can’t be heard because the worship band is floating, eyes closed, in the massive white-water wake of its own rock and roll, we’re no longer serving our brothers and sisters.
Weakness #3: The New Great Divide Between Clergy and Laity
In the centuries since John Wycliffe began printing Bibles in common English, revolutionary men and women have striven to reduce the divide between the professional clergy and the laity. The reason was simple: when the gap between the professional holy men and the mere congregants became too wide, people began viewing the clergy as a necessary medium to get to God. Men like Martin Luther knew this wasn’t Biblical. We all have free access to a relationship with Christ. We don’t have to go through a priest or recite a special prayer in Latin to enjoy personal fellowship with our Creator. This divide between the professional spiritual people and the amateurs also led to laziness. People in the congregation stopped working on their personal relationships with God. Instead, they let the professionals handle it for them.
A dangerously similar gap occurs when you have a perfectly polished, overwhelmingly loud (but beautiful) sounding worship band raising a Wall of Sound. The professionals become the center of the room’s sonic space. Even the physical reality of a small group of musicians set apart from the commoners and placed on a lofty stage smacks of the clergy vs. laity divide. The church I attend got rid of the stage altogether. They put the worship team down on the floor in the middle of the people. This took some fancy sound system techniques to accomplish, but it got the point across: the worship team is not the primary source of worship. The congregation is. I’m not saying that every church should emulate mine and ditch the stage. Doing that would definitely be the wrong thing for some churches. It turned out to be the right thing for mine.
Embrace the Imperfect
The overarching point here is simple: when you have a perceived group of professional worshipers, everything becomes too smooth and perfect, like the auto-tuned varnish of a flawless TV show theme song. The flagrantly human struggle of the Christian life is covered up with magazine gloss and quick finesse. It would be better if we threw open the doors to imperfection and let the raw sounds of our spiritual family of Christ be heard loud and clear. During those moments of corporate worship, the voice of the Bride will evoke a sudden awareness of the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews. It will express the breathtaking corporeity of Christ’s beloved more effectively than any perfectly tuned drum kit rattling the rib cages of the front row with every downbeat.